Skin cancers are more prevalent than ever- killing thousands of people in the US every year. About 90 percent of the time, the risk of developing skin cancer is directly related to the amount and intensity of ultraviolet (UV) light exposure one receives from the sun.
Fortunately, it’s easy to limit excessive UV exposure — and lower your risk of skin cancer — with the regular use of sun protection. But, finding the right sunscreen for your specific needs can be a challenge.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US has approved the use of seventeen sunscreen ingredients that include both chemical and physical substances. Both types can be effective and safe if used properly. The question is, which sunscreen ingredients are right for you? For example, babies and toddlers have different sun protection needs than adults, while sunscreens made for dry skin may not suit people with acne or rosacea. The following guide should help you find the right sunscreen for your skin’s needs.
For starters, the kind of sunscreen you use may vary depending on the type of outdoor exposure you are expecting. For incidental sun exposure — when you are outside only for minutes at a time — a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15, which filters out about 93 percent of UV radiation, is usually sufficient.
For extended, intense exposure, you should use a broadspectrum (effective protection against significant portions of UVA and UVB), water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. SPF 30 filters out up to 97 percent of the sun’s UV radiation; SPF 50 filters out up to 98 percent.
Chemicals can irritate children’s sensitive skin; PABA and oxybenzone in particular have been associated with skin reactions. The physical sunscreens zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tend to be better tolerated by people with sensitive skin and can usually be found in sunscreens for babies and children.
Patients with allergy-prone skin or conditions such as acne or rosacea should avoid products containing preservatives or fragrances, as well as those containing PABA or oxybenzone. Again, the ingredients least likely to cause skin reactions are the physical sunscreens, as well as those made with salicylates and ecamsule. Allergy prone and rosacea patients should also avoid sunscreens containing alcohol. Patients with acne, however, may find gel formulas, which usually contain alcohol, more drying and less likely to aggravate acne. Acne-prone sceen patients should avoid greasy sunscreens (often marketed as “creams”).
Dry skin can benefit from moisturizing sunscreens. Numerous moisturizers are used in sunscreens; popular ones include lanolin, oils, and silicones such as dimethicone. Moisturizing sunscreens are often formulated as creams, lotions, or ointments, so look for these terms on the label.
Individuals with darker skin who tan easily and rarely burn may feel they do not need to use sunscreen. However, like sunburn, a tan is the result of DNA damage from exposure to the sun’s harmful UV radiation. They can try newer preparations—with no titanium content—to make sure their skin does not look chalky and white. Chemical sunscreens are also an option; look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15+.
Although older individuals may have already received large amounts of UV light exposure in their lifetime, they can still benefit from sunscreen use. At any age, unprotected sun exposure increases the risk of developing new skin cancers and pre-cancers; it also accelerates skin aging, leading to age spots, wrinkles, sagging, and leathery skin.
Sunscreen is an important part of a sun protection regimen that should also include seeking the shade, avoiding UV tanning, and wearing protective clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
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